The information in this section is gathered from a number of sources, collected here for the use of families, partners, and
friends of transgender, non-binary, and gender-nonconforming people to gain insight into the lives of those they care so much about, and can better understand how to support them.
An Introduction to Transgender People
WATCH: There are at least 1.4 million transgender people living in the United States. We would like you to meet just a few of them in our latest video, An Introduction to Transgender People.Learn more about transgender identity and what you can do to support transgender people at http://www.transequality.org/about-transgender
Posted by National Center for Transgender Equality on Monday, July 11, 2016
Understanding what it is like to be transgender can be hard, especially if you have never met a transgender person.
Transgender is a broad term that describes people whose gender identity is different from the gender they were assigned at birth, with “Trans” for short.
To treat a transgender person with respect, you treat them according to their gender identity, not their sex at birth. So, someone who lives as a woman today is called a transgender woman and should be referred to as “she” and “her.” A transgender man lives as a man today and should be referred to as “he” and “him.”
Gender identity is your internal knowledge of your gender – for example, your knowledge that you’re a man, a woman, or another gender. Gender expression is how a person presents their gender on the outside, often through behavior, clothing, hairstyle, voice or body characteristics.
When a person begins to live according to their gender identity, rather than the gender they were thought to be when they were born, this time period is called gender transition. Deciding to transition can take a lot of reflection. Many transgender people risk social stigma, discrimination, and harassment when they tell other people who they really are. Despite those risks, being open about one’s gender identity can be life-affirming and even life-saving.
Possible steps in a gender transition may or may not include changing your clothing, appearance, name, or the pronoun people use to refer to you (like “she,” “he,” or “they”). Often people change their identification documents to better reflect their gender. Some people undergo hormone therapy or other medical procedures to change their physical characteristics so their body matches their gender.
Most people – including most transgender people – are either male or female. But some people don’t neatly fit into the categories of “man/male” or “woman/female”. Some people have a gender that blends elements of both, fluctuates over time, or is different than either male/female. Some people don’t identify with any gender.
People whose gender is not male or female use many different terms to describe themselves, with non-binary being one of the most common. Other terms include genderqueer, agender, bigender, and more. None of these terms mean exactly the same thing – but all speak to an experience of gender that is not simply male or female.
Some societies – like ours – tend to recognize just two genders, male and female. The idea that there are only two genders is called a “gender binary”. Therefore, “non-binary” is one term people use to describe genders that don’t fall into one of these two categories, male or female.
Basic Facts about Non-Binary People
Non-binary people are nothing new. Non-binary identities have been recognized for millennia by cultures and societies around the world.
Most transgender people are not non-binary. While some transgender people are non-binary, most transgender people have a gender identity that is either male or female, and should be treated like any other man or woman.
Being non-binary is not the same thing as being intersex. Intersex people have anatomy or genes that don’t fit typical definitions of male and female. Most intersex people identify as either men or women. Non-binary people are usually not intersex: they’re usually born with bodies that may fit typical definitions of male and female, but their innate gender identity is something other than male or female.
How to Be Respectful and Supportive of Non-Binary People
You don’t have to understand what it means for someone to be non-binary to respect them.
Use the name a person asks you to use. This is one of the most critical aspects of being respectful of a non-binary person, as the name you may have been using may not reflect their gender identity. Don’t ask someone what their old name was.
Try not to make any assumptions about people’s gender. You can’t tell if someone is non-binary simply by looking at them, just like how you can’t tell if someone is transgender just by how they look.
If you’re not sure what pronouns someone uses, ask. Many non-binary people use “they” while others use “he” or “she,” and still others use other pronouns. Asking someone their pronouns may feel awkward at first, but is one of the simplest and most important ways to show respect for someone’s identity.
Advocate for non-binary friendly policies. It’s important for non-binary people to be able to live, dress and have their gender respected at work, at school and in public spaces.
Understand that, for many non-binary people, figuring out which bathroom to use can be challenging. For many non-binary people, using either room might feel unsafe, because others may verbally harass them or even physically attack them. Non-binary people should be supported by being able to use the restroom that they believe they will be safest in.
Talk to non-binary people to learn more about who they are. There’s no one way to be non-binary. The best way to understand what it’s like to be non-binary is to talk with non-binary people and listen to their stories.
How does someone know that they are transgender?
People can realize that they’re transgender at any age. Some people can trace their awareness back to their earlier memories – they just knew. Others may need more time to realize that they are transgender. Some people may spend years feeling like they don’t fit in without really understanding why, or may try to avoid thinking or talking about their gender out of fear, shame, or confusion. Trying to repress or change one’s gender identity doesn’t work; in fact, it can be very painful and damaging to one’s emotional and mental health. As transgender people become more visible in the media and in community life across the country, more transgender people are able to name and understand their own experiences and may feel safer and more comfortable sharing it with others.
For many transgender people, recognizing who they are and deciding to start gender transition can take a lot of reflection. Transgender people risk social stigma, discrimination, and harassment when they tell other people who they really are. Parents, friends, coworkers, classmates, and neighbors may be accepting—but they also might not be, and many transgender people fear that they will not be accepted by their loved ones and others in their life. Despite those risks, being open about one’s gender identity, and living a life that feels truly authentic, can be a life-affirming and even life-saving decision.
Thinking About Your Own Gender
It can be difficult for people who are not transgender to imagine what being transgender feels like. Imagine what it would be like if everyone told you that the gender that you’ve always known yourself to be was wrong. What would you feel like if you woke up one day with a body that’s associated with a different gender? What would you do if everyone else—your doctors, your friends, your family—believed you’re a man and expected you to act like a man when you’re actually a woman, or believed you’re a woman even though you’ve always known you’re a man?
What’s the difference between sexual orientation and gender identity?
Gender identity refers to your internal knowledge of your own gender—for example, your knowledge that you’re a man, a woman, or another gender. Sexual orientation has to do with whom you’re attracted to. Like non-transgender people, transgender people can have any sexual orientation.
What’s the difference between being transgender and being intersex?
People sometimes confuse being transgender and being intersex. Intersex people have reproductive anatomy or genes that don’t fit typical definitions of male or female, which is often discovered at birth. A transgender person is usually born with a body and genes that match a typical male or female, but they know their gender identity to be different.
Some people think that determining who is male or female at birth is a simple matter of checking the baby’s external anatomy, but there’s actually a lot more to it. Every year, an estimated 3% of babies are born with a set of characteristics that can’t easily be classified as “male” or “female”, ie. intersex. There are many different types of intersex conditions.
While it’s possible to be both transgender and intersex, most transgender people aren’t intersex, and most intersex people aren’t transgender.
What is the difference between being transgender and being gender non-conforming?
Being gender non-conforming means not conforming to gender stereotypes. For example, someone’s clothes, hairstyle, speech patterns, or hobbies might be considered more “feminine” or “masculine” than what’s stereotypically associated with their gender.
Gender non-conforming people may or may not be transgender. For example, some women who were raised and identify as women present themselves in ways that might be considered masculine, like by having short hair or wearing stereotypically masculine clothes. The term “tomboy” refers to girls who are gender non-conforming, which often means they play rough sports, hang out with boys, and dress in more masculine clothing.
Similarly, transgender people may be gender non-conforming, or they might conform to gender stereotypes for the gender they live and identify as.
What does it mean to have a gender that’s not male or female?
Most transgender people are men or women. But some people don’t neatly fit into the categories of “man” or “woman” or “male” or “female.” For example, some people have a gender that blends elements of being a man or a woman, or a gender that is different than either male or female. Some people don’t identify with any gender. Some people’s gender fluctuates over time.
People whose gender is not male or female may use many different terms to describe themselves. One term that some people use is non-binary, which is used because the gender binary refers to the two categories of male and female. Another term that people use is genderqueer. If you’re not sure what term someone uses to describe their gender, you should ask them politely.
It’s important to remember that if someone is transgender, it does not necessarily mean that they have a “third gender.” Most transgender people do have a gender identity that is either male or female, and they should be treated like any other man or woman.
Why don’t transgender people get counseling to accept the gender they were assigned at birth?
Counseling aimed at changing someone’s gender identity, sometimes known as conversion therapy, doesn’t work and can be extremely harmful. The belief that someone’s gender identity can be changed through therapy runs counter to the overwhelming consensus in the medical community. Telling someone that a core part of who they are is wrong or delusional and forcing them to change it is dangerous, sometimes leading to lasting depression, substance abuse, self-hatred and even suicide. Many transgender people find it helpful to get counseling to help them decide when to tell the world they are transgender and deal with the repercussions of stigma and discrimination that comes afterward.
Why is transgender equality important?
Transgender people should be treated with the same dignity and respect as anyone else and be able to live, and be respected, according to their gender identity. But transgender people often face serious discrimination and mistreatment at work, school, and in their families and communities.
For example, transgender people are more likely to:
- Be fired or denied a job
- Face harassment and bullying at school
- Become homeless or live in extreme poverty
- Be evicted or denied housing or access to a shelter
- Be denied access to critical medical care
- Be incarcerated or targeted by law enforcement
- Face abuse and violence
Living without fear of discrimination and violence and being supported and affirmed in being who they are is critical for allowing transgender people to live healthy, safe, and fulfilling lives. In recent years, laws, policies and attitudes around the country have changed significantly, allowing more transgender people than ever to live fuller, safer, and healthier lives.
The transgender movement is part of a long tradition of social justice movements of people working together to claim their civil rights and better opportunities in this country. These challenges are connected. Discrimination that transgender people of color face is compounded by racism, and lower-income transgender people face economic challenges and classism.
Bathroom access for transgender people has recently become a focal point of conversation and debate. This page includes information for transgender people and allies on responding to various questions and concerns regarding bathroom access.
Transgender-inclusive policies are not a safety risk.
If they were, we would know by now, as transgender people have been using public bathrooms and locker rooms for decades. Policies that allow transgender people to use the correct bathroom—the bathroom that best matches the transgender person’s identity—do not legalize harassment, stalking, violence, or sexual assault. Those behaviors are, and will continue to be, against the law for anyone, anywhere.
Hundreds of cities, school districts, and 18 states already protect transgender people’s right to use restrooms, and none have seen a rise in incidents of people attacking anyone or of people pretending to be transgender in order to get access to restrooms.
Forcing transgender people to use private or separate bathrooms is not the solution.
Offering separate or private bathrooms is a great way to ensure anyone can feel comfortable when they go to the bathroom, whether or not they’re transgender. However, private bathrooms may be unavailable or very inconvenient to access. More importantly, forcing transgender people to use private bathrooms when other people do not have to is isolating and reinforces the idea that transgender people are somehow harmful and should be kept separate from everybody else.
Excluding transgender people from public restrooms does not protect anyone’s privacy.
Lots of people feel uncomfortable in public restrooms, and that was true long before the current public debates about access for transgender people. Transgender people also want privacy in bathrooms and they use the bathroom for the same reason as everyone else: to do their business and leave. Thankfully, bathrooms have stall doors so this is not an issue. Opponents of equal rights are using a desire for privacy—without discussing what privacy truly means—as a way to harm transgender people.
We can have productive and respectful conversations about how to make restrooms and locker rooms more comfortable for everyone, without making it about transgender people.
Allowing transgender people to use the correct bathroom does not mean women will have to share bathrooms with men, or vice-versa.
Transgender-inclusive policies do allow for men’s and women’s rooms, and do not require gender-neutral bathrooms. Instead, transgender-inclusive policies allow all people—including transgender people—to use the bathroom that best matches their gender identity. Those who are living as women use the women’s room, and those that are living as men use the men’s restroom.
For many non-binary people, figuring out which bathroom to use can be challenging.
For non-binary people, who don’t identify fully as either male or female, using either the women’s and the men’s room might feel unsafe, because others may verbally harass them or even physically attack them. Non-binary people should be able to use the restroom that they will be safest in.
Nondiscrimination laws don’t violate anyone’s religious freedom.
Everyone—including transgender people—should be treated equally under the law. Like all nondiscrimination protections, trans-inclusive policies don’t require anyone to change their religious beliefs: they simply ensure that transgender people can live, work, study and participate in public life according to their identities.
Transgender people may have some legal protections, but still need strong and comprehensive nondiscrimination laws and cultural acceptance to truly thrive. Laws alone won’t protect transgender people without increased public awareness, outspoken allies, and a society that values the dignity of transgender people.
Things to Remember about Being an Ally
There is no one way to be a ‘perfect’ ally. The transgender community is diverse and complex, coming from every region of the world, from every racial and ethnic background, and from every faith community. This means that different members of the transgender community have different needs and priorities. Similarly, there is no one right way to handle every situation, or interact with every trans person. Be respectful, do your best, and keep trying.
You don’t have to understand someone’s identity to respect it. Some people haven’t heard a lot about transgender identity, or have trouble understanding what it means to be trans, and that’s okay. But all people, even those whose identities you don’t fully understand, deserve respect.
You can’t always tell if someone is transgender simply by looking at them. Many people expect that they’ll “just know” when someone is trans, and may be surprised to learn that this isn’t always true. Since there is no one transgender experience, there is no one way for transgender people to look, either. This also means that transgender people may be in groups or gatherings that you attend without you knowing it, making it important to be an outspoken ally and supporter even in spaces that you think don’t have any transgender people in them.
There is no “one right way” to be transgender. Some transgender people choose to medically transition, and some don’t. Some transgender people choose to legally change their names or ID documents, and some don’t. Some transgender people choose to change their appearance (like their clothing or hair), and some don’t. Likewise, some transgender people may want to do many of those things but are unable to because they can’t afford it or for safety reasons. A transgender person’s identity does not depend on what things they have or haven’t done to transition, and no two transgender people’s journeys are exactly alike.
Continue to educate yourself. One of the simplest ways to be a strong ally is to take your education into your own hands. It’s important to have conversations with the trans people in your life, but it’s also important for you to seek out resources and information on your own.
Interacting with Transgender People
This section includes information on respectfully interacting with transgender individuals one-on-one or when in a small group.
Use the language a transgender person uses for themselves. No two transgender people are exactly the same, and different transgender people may use different words to describe themselves. You should follow the lead of each transgender person, as they will best know the language that is right for them.
If you don’t know what pronouns to use, ask. A simple way to see what pronouns someone uses—he, she, they, or something else—is to wait and see if it comes up naturally in conversation. If you’re still unsure, ask politely and respectfully, without making a big deal about it. Sharing your own pronouns is a great way to bring up the topic—for example, “Hi, I’m Rebecca and I use she/her/hers as my pronouns. How about you?” If you accidentally use the wrong pronouns, apologize and move on. Making a big deal out of a pronoun mistake may be awkward and often draws unwanted attention to the transgender person.
Be careful and considerate about what other questions you ask. There are many topics—medical transition, life pre-transition, sexual activity—that you may be curious about. That doesn’t mean it’s appropriate to ask a transgender person about them, or expect a transgender person to be comfortable sharing intimate details about themselves. There are two questions you can ask yourself that may help determine if a topic is appropriate to bring up:
“Do I need to know this information to treat them respectfully?” Asking someone’s name and pronoun is almost always appropriate, as we use that information in talking to and about each other every day. Beyond that, though, you may be curious about questions that are not things you truly need to know. For example, a transgender coworker’s surgical history is rarely information that you need to know.
“Would I be comfortable if this question was turned around and asked of me?” Another good way to determine if a question is appropriate is to think about how it would feel if someone asked you something similar. For example, it would probably not feel appropriate for a coworker to ask you about your private areas of your body. Likewise, it’s probably not appropriate to ask similar questions about a transgender coworker’s body.
Here are some specific topics that many transgender people are uncomfortable discussing with anyone but those closest to them:
- Their birth name (never call it their “real” name!) or photographs from before they transitioned
- What hormones they are (or aren’t) taking
- What surgeries they have (or have not) had
- Questions related to sexual relationships
Someone’s transgender identity is their private information to share, or not. Just because someone has told you that they are transgender does not necessarily mean that they have told everyone in their life. A transgender person may not choose to tell others that they are transgender because it is unsafe to do so, or simply because they don’t want to share that information with someone. It is not up to you to decide who should or shouldn’t know that a particular person is transgender. Similarly, transgender people should be the ones to decide how much information is being shared.
Avoid compliments or advice based on stereotypes about transgender people, or about how men and women should look or act. People sometimes intend to be supportive but unintentionally hurt transgender people by focusing on their looks or whether they conform to gender stereotypes. Here are some examples of what to avoid, as they often feel like backhanded compliments:
- “You look like a real woman! I never would have known that you’re trans.”
- “You would look less trans if you just got a wig/shaved better/wore more makeup/etc.”
- “No real man would wear clothing like that. You should change if you don’t want people to know you’re transgender.”
- “I’d date him, even though he’s transgender.”
This section includes information on being an outspoken ally in larger groups, at work or at school.
Speak out in support of transgender people and transgender rights. Politely correct others if they use the wrong name or pronoun for a transgender person. More broadly, it is important to challenge anti-transgender remarks, jokes, and conversations. It can be scary to speak out, but loud and visible support for transgender rights can show transgender people that they are accepted, encourage other allies to speak out, and help change the minds of people who aren’t supportive of transgender people yet.
Support transgender people who experience discrimination. Transgender people may feel that they don’t have support from others when making complaints about discrimination or bringing their experiences to authorities, administrators, or others in position of power. Make it clear that you will support the transgender people in your life whether or not they decide to make formal complaints.
Think about how you use gendered language. Do you regularly greet groups by saying, “Ladies and gentlemen?” Do you have a coworker who refers to everyone as “guys?” Is there a particular gender-based joke your friend loves to tell? Many transgender people are fine being called ‘ladies’ or ‘gentlemen,’ but you can’t know without first asking. Consider changing your habits to avoid making assumptions about people’s gender or pronouns, and encouraging the people in your life to do the same. This can take time and effort, but is an important way to be an ally and support transgender people outside of individual, face-to-face interactions.
Learn about policies affecting transgender people. Are there any laws that protect transgender people where you live? Any policies at work or school that are inclusive of transgender people? It’s important to learn more about the challenges that transgender people face and the goals of transgender advocates, and, if you’re comfortable with it, even help push to change bad laws and policies or support good ones.
Hopefully by this point you feel armed with the tools and knowledge needed to be an ally to the transgender people in your life, as well as the larger transgender community. Remember: no one is able to be the perfect ally at all times, so it’s important to provide as much support as you can and to learn from the mistakes you may make along the way.
Thanks for being a strong ally!
Changing Businesses, Schools, and More
Rethink gender on forms and documents. When creating forms and documents, consider whether you need to include gender at all. Many times, we default to asking for gender without considering why or how that information will be used. If you do need to ask for gender information, consider using a blank space for people to fill in as they feel comfortable, rather than a boxes marked “male” and “female,” or make it clear that people can fill in forms in a way that matches their gender identity.
Ensure everyone has access to bathrooms and other facilities. Everyone should be able to safely and comfortably use bathrooms and other gendered facilities. Push to allow people to use the bathroom that matches their gender identity rather than what’s on their ID. In addition, providing gender-neutral or private bathrooms is a great way to provide safe and comfortable space for everyone (but never require anyone to use them if they don’t want!). And if a restroom is designed for just one user at a time, make sure that it’s gender-neutral—there’s no reason to make it a men’s or women’s restroom. Take down that “Women” or “Men” sign and put up new signs that say “Restroom.”
Push for active support, positive acceptance, and justice; not simply tolerance. A baseline of tolerance—allowing transgender people to exist—is an important start, but we can do more. If your school brings outside speakers or hosts events, make sure that some of them include transgender people and topics. If your business donates to nonprofits, look into partnering with organizations that support the transgender community. If your organization posts community events on social media, include some from the transgender community.
Craft a transgender-inclusive nondiscrimination policy. Shifting the culture of an organization takes time. Crafting a transgender-inclusive nondiscrimination policy can help clarify how your organization supports transgender people, and ensure that there’s a way to respond to those who aren’t supportive.
Changing the World
Call your elected officials. Call your elected local, state, and federal officials to thank them when they do support transgender rights and to provide important criticism when they don’t.
Work to pass laws in your city or state, and on the federal level, that outlaw discrimination in employment, housing, public accommodations, and education based on gender identity/expression. This could be as simple as calling your elected officials, or as involved as a letter-writing campaign or collecting signatures.
Change the curriculum of medical, health, crisis response and social work programs, or bring in trainers, to teach these providers about transgender people and how to treat transgender people with respect and professionalism. Include information about the rejection, discrimination and violence that transgender people face and how to provide services and support to transgender clients.
Work with schools to make them safe for transgender students.
Work with homeless shelters to make them safe for transgender people.
Work with suicide prevention, HIV prevention and treatment, alcohol and drug abuse treatment, and anti-smoking programs to ensure that their work is trans-inclusive and their staff is knowledgeable about transgender issues. Find trainers and teach them how to deal sensitively with trans people seeking assistance.
Work with police departments to have fair written policies with regard to interacting with transgender members of the public, regardless if they are seeking assistance or being arrested, and make sure all police officers are trained on following the policy and treating transgender people with respect.
Work with jail and prison systems to ensure the respectful and safe treatment of transgender prisoners.
Transgender people come from every population, and are of all races, religions, ages, and more. There are transgender immigrants, employees, prisoners, sex workers, and every other category imaginable. Make an effort to be as inclusive as possible of all kinds of transgender people when working to support transgender communities.
Contains a large number of resources, forums, chat rooms, and more for partners of trans individuals.
Here is a great guide to help support your transgender partner.
A detailed guide for partners of trans individuals. How to provide support and approach being an ally to your partner.
Reddit is an amazing online community of resources and to connect with others. This is a subreddit intended for people to ask questions, air out concerns, give and be given feedback, and more involving being partners of trans individuals.